National Review: Conservatives should accept evolution

Both the Left and Right have their issues with evolution. On the Right, many are evangelical Christians and reject evolution on religious grounds. Even Orthodox Jews like Ben Shapiro have found themselves flirting with Intelligent Design, and when I saw Shapiro implicitly attacking modern evolutionary biology I gave up all hope for him. The voting base for the Right may be fine with those who attack or deny evolution, but in the long run you’re going to look pretty stupid if you reject it. (It’s curious that I know nothing about Trump’s views on the issue.)

The Left, too, while accepting Darwinian evolution in general, has problems with evolutionary psychology—not that the discipline is perfect. But wholesale rejection of it, by those like P. Z. Myers, is intellectually dishonest and ideologically driven. Many also imply that evolution tells us that there is a spectrum of not just gender, but of sex itself, so that sex is not “binary”.  In fact, three organismal biology societies, including the Society for the Study of Evolution (of which I was once President), issued a statement saying that “sex is a continuum” which is infuriatingly wrong. In our species, and many others, evolution has in fact favored a binary: male and female.

Denial or rejection of evolution, then, is based on ideology: largely religious on the Right and Blank Slate-ism on the Left.

It’s refreshing, then, to see an article in National Review, a conservative journal, arguing that a.) evolution is true and b.) conservatives shouldn’t be afraid of it. The article is below (click on screenshot); it’s by Razib Khan, a geneticist and science writer. He’s been criticized for writing for questionable publications that purvey racism and bigotry, and on that grounds the New York Times let him go as a temporary columnist. He surely must be a conservative; in fact, he identifies himself as one in the first sentence.

But whatever his past, the piece in the National Review isn’t half bad (click on screenshot):

He does point out the forms of evolution denialism I highlighted above, but of course his article is motivated by conservatives’ rejection of evolution, and to that end he takes out after Michael Behe, whose Intelligent Design views are much admired by conservatives like Shapiro. In general, though, Khan highlights how evolution has made testable predictions, and how much we know about these days. In short, he tells conservatives that it’s true, and to stop fighting it.

But I have mixed feelings about stuff like this:

But evolutionary biology is nothing for conservatives to fear, because it is one of the crowning achievements of modern Western civilization. It should be viewed not as an acid gnawing at the bones of civilization, but as a jewel. The science built upon the rock of Charles Darwin’s ideas is a reflection of Western modernity’s commitment to truth as a fundamental value. And many Christians well-versed in evolutionary science find it entirely compatible with their religious beliefs.

Further, while evolutionary biology does not tell us what is good, the truth of the world around us can inform our efforts to seek the good — and in this sense, the political implications of evolutionary biology do not favor the Left. Today many on the Left reject the very idea of human nature, to the point of effectively being evolution deniers themselves. They assert that society and values can be restructured at will. That male and female are categories of the mind, rather than of nature. In rejecting evolution, a conservative gives up the most powerful rejoinder to these claims.

Those who reject human nature on the Left are not mainstream Leftists, but extremist Leftists, and the data show that many more people on the Left accept evolution in general, including human evolution, than those on the Right. But it’s wrong to imply that the Left consists of wholesale deniers of evolution. True, Blank Slaters do reject mainstream science (and not just evolution—also evidence that male and females have different brains and show different innate preferences), and that’s to their discredit.

Here are data from a 2013 Pew poll showing that the problem is greater on the Right than on the Left:

Khan also errs, I think, when trying to show that evolution is compatible with religion. He uses the old trope that “some scientists were religious, ergo harmony”:

But what about the metaphysical implications? Richard Dawkins would have you believe that evolutionary biology is fundamentally atheistic. But he is one voice. There are in fact evolutionary biologists who are religious, including Evangelical Protestants. The most influential evolutionary biologist of the first half the 20th century, R. A. Fisher, was an Anglican and a political conservative. The existence of people who are Christians and evolutionary biologists shows that there is a wide range of opinions on how evolutionary biology relates to religious faith.

True, but newer data also show that religious people are far less accepting of evolution than nonreligious people, and of course the large majority of scientists in elite universities are out-and-out atheists. Here are more data from that Pew poll:

Note that the biggest acceptors of evolution are “unaffiliated” people and white mainline Protestants, while the more conservative religious show less acceptance—especially white evangelical Protestants.

And for good reason: evolution in fact does fly in the face of many religious beliefs—not just in its flat denial of Biblical claims like the Creation and of Adam and Eve as the progenitors of all of us (I’m looking at you, Vatican), but in other ways too. Here are two slides I use in my talks about the incompatibility of science and faith (many of these points are taken from Steve Stewart-Williams’s excellent book, Darwin, God and The Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew):

The points in red are the ones I consider most important in promoting rejection of evolution by religious people. Ergo, conservatives are still going to have trouble accepting evolution insofar as they need to comport it with their faith. Nevertheless, Khan is absolutely right when he says this:

But looking forward, the energies of the Right are not most fruitfully spent on debating descent with modification and the common origin of life.

Amen!

55 Comments

  1. Posted May 15, 2019 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Re the Pew poll, the results are surely skewed—not to say rendered useless—by the choices offered: “Evolved over time” or “Existed in present form since beginning.” The former is a endorsement of evolution in its broadest sense, while the latter is an extreme position held by only a small percentage of even those who might argue with evolution. I can’t see that results tell us anything to the point.

  2. Mark
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Xians, and theists in general, have a desperate psychological need to manufacture arguments against what they perceive to be an attack on their faith where none exists, and it dominates all other concerns.

    Their religious delusion is the basis of their worldview. The disconnect is in their brains, not in the evidence for evolution. If they reject their creation story, that means their god is “wrong,” and that would mean they and their worldview are.

  3. Posted May 15, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    “The scary implications of evolution”

    Scary to whom?

    Guess that’s clear in the context of your talks.

    /@

    • Posted May 15, 2019 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      What I (and Steve, who wrote the book) meant is that these are implications that people SAY discomfit them.

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    (It’s curious that I know nothing about Trump’s views on the issue.)

    I wouldn’t presuppose that he has any (views on the topic that is) — although, if put to the question, he might well adopt an anti-evolution posture as branding for the evangelicals in his base.

    Donald Trump has never demonstrated the slightest intellectual curiosity, at least as regards anything unlikely to result in self-enrichment or self-aggrandizement. I doubt the man has ever read a science book (or any other book, for that matter, including the ones that bear his name on their covers as coauthor). Hell, his White House staff can barely get him to read his top-secret Daily Briefing Bulletin (having to tempt him with pictures and his name in ALLCAPS just to get him to turn the pages).

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      I think that is just about right on Trump. His team of Pence and DeVos were both in favor of teaching creationism in school. Let the kids decide. In other words, if we can’t get evolution out put this crap in. If there isn’t any money involved, Trump doesn’t care. He is still preaching all the birds are dead because of wind mills.

    • rickflick
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      I was going to say much the same thing. I can just see the moment during the campaign when someone asked DT his stand on evolution. He swirls to an aid and speaks quietly, “What’s evolution and what do I think about it?”

    • Posted May 15, 2019 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      No, I just wondered why no reporter had ever asked him, or, if they had, why we don’t know the answer.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 15, 2019 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        If a reporter did ask him, would he answer? Is there any benefit (for him) of answering? I rather doubt the latter, so the former would be a question of chance.
        Is Trump dumber than Bush the Second, or … who was the potatoe-spelling one – Quayle or Gingrich?

        • merilee
          Posted May 15, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

          Quayle was the potatoe guy and I think that he and Dubya look like veritable scholars next to Trump.

          • merilee
            Posted May 15, 2019 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

            Although I believe that Quayle said he wanted to go down to Latin America to practice his Latin…

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 15, 2019 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        The question about evolution was famously asked at a debate of the 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls, but I don’t recall it having been asked of a candidate since.

        It’s too bad, because it serves as a useful proxy for the acceptance of science more generally.

        • rickflick
          Posted May 15, 2019 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

          I think it’s more a proxy for how pathetically hypocritical they are willing to be. They cater to their constituents. Political whores. Beliefs don’t matter. They might as well forget every independent thought they ever had.

    • merilee
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      You said it much better than I could. No curiosity, no interest, no brains.

    • Murali
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      Trump would probably say that he’s heard that there are good people on both sides; that, frankly, he could go either way; that there is good science on both sides; that, frankly, he could go either way.

      That should settle the issue.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      tRump’s views on evolution?

      “Ug. Me not monkey, me *Prezident!*”

      and on further reflection

      “I am the most highly evolved hooman on this planet. Watch me piss all over those dumb fucks in Washington!”

      (How do I know? The FSB have planted a transmitter in his brain and it’s being read by Russian hackers.)

      cr

  5. John Conoboy
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if his statement that “the political implications of evolutionary biology do not favor the Left” goes beyond just being able to reject a few leftist ideas. Conservatives want excuses for many of their odious social policies relating to programs to help the poor, immigrants, the sick, and so forth.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I still haven’t gotten over my disappointment when (back in ’97, I think it was) the founder of National Review, William F. Buckley, Jr., took the pro-ID side against Ken Miller, Eugenie Scott, and Michael Ruse in the evolution debate on Firing Line.

    I always got a kick out of the flaming old reactionary in spite of himself. I still think the ornery s.o.b. took the anti-evolution side out of pure contrarianism.

    Anyway, I’m glad to see WFB’s old mag come down on the right side of the issue (though I take its positions with a grain of salt these days, ever since it devoted an entire issue to “Conservatives Against Trump” during the 2016 campaign, only come crawling back to his nibs like simpering sycophants after the election. I’m confident Buckley himself would’ve never approved of that or of DJT either).

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      I hadn’t known this, and now I’m disappointed, too. I’d been pleased with the number of conservative commentators who went after the ID movement for its intellectual dishonesty, particularly Charles Krauthammer and George Will.

  7. Ken Pidcock
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    But looking forward, the energies of the Right are not most fruitfully spent on debating descent with modification and the common origin of life.

    Actually, most proponents of Intelligent Design don’t debate those. I’d be more heartened if Khan had said …debating whether biological evolution is an unguided natural process.

  8. Roger
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Watch out folks. Ben Shapiro will argue evolution into oblivion. The most powerful loudmouth arguer ever. I can see the headlines now. “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Evolution”.

    • Posted May 16, 2019 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      If he knows what’s good for him he won’t attempt it.

      Thought he was a somewhat rational conservative at first, then he started talking about climate change and evolution.

      -Ryan

    • Posted May 16, 2019 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      David Gelernter, a religous Jew in the Yale Computer Science dept and a notable public intellectual has now come our squarely against evolution so Shapiro is old news.

      At his talks Shapiro always said very matter-of-factly that he accepted evolution. I think now that was a ploy. He makes the artificial distinction of accepting microevolution, while suggesting that macroevolution requires a designer.

  9. revelator60
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    “He surely must be a conservative”
    He definitely is, but he is one of the very few conservatives I can read without gritting my teeth, a conservative in the literal sense of the word rather than a right winger. His blog Gene Expression is worthwhile reading (https://www.gnxp.com/), even if one isn’t a geneticist.

    • tjeales
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

      Yes I came here to say that. I respect Razib quite a bit even though we have different politics, his blog is good and the podcast called The Insight that he does with Spencer Wells is also excellent and informative.

  10. Roger
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Sketch of a new book I’m writing called, “What A Dipwad That Meyer Guy Is”.

    Chapter 1

    “It takes a mind with conscious awareness to generate information in a digital form”, said the dipwad.

    Chapter 2

    “What a dipwad that guy is”, said everyone.

  11. Roger
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    The closest I could find was a Donald Trump Jr. tweet, “Darwin is full of crap! If his theories were correct there’s no way half the people I’ve dealt w today could have survived evolution ;)”. Which of course is sarcasm, so we still don’t know what Jr. thinks. And of course it is not Donald Sr., so we still don’t know what Sr. thinks. Even of Donald Sr. said something one way or the other we still wouldn’t know what he really thinks anyway.

    • Posted May 15, 2019 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      Junior is an example of what you get when there are no selection pressures.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      So much for Uday; wonder what Qusay has to say on the subject.

    • Posted May 16, 2019 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      My best guess is that Trump was an atheist and accepted evolution, but unlike most people here, this was not because he put any thought into the matter. It was the easy, default position and either position was irrelevant for making money.

      I doubt he’s ever put much thought into whether there is a God but his followers mostly believe in him so Trump may have convinced himself he does now believe in God. But he believes in God as an idea/entity that can help him politically and by extension, make money.

  12. Curtis
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Razib Khan is an atheist child of Bangladeshi Muslim parents and grew up in conservative, eastern Oregon.

    In this article, he is speaking to conservatives and is trying to use language that will help convince them. Denying the existence of god would not help his cause. Emphasizing the religiousness of Fisher and other scientists is a good tactic. Talking about the scientific weaknesses of the left is a way to gain credibility with the right.

    I strongly recommend his podcast – https://insitome.libsyn.com/
    His guests include Lee Berger, Stuart Ritchie, Carl Zimmer and others. He is well informed about CRSIPR, ancient genomes, human migration, Neandertal, Denisovan, personal genomics, etc.

    • tjeales
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

      +1

  13. Joel
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Some lawyers are criminals. Therefore, crime is compatible with law.

  14. Posted May 15, 2019 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    It’s curious that I know nothing about Trump’s views on the issue.

    He believes he sprung fully-formed from Zeus’ forehead.

    • merilee
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      I can think of a different part of Zeus whence he mighta sprung😖

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 15, 2019 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

        Zeus was indeed known for that. Couldn’t keep it in his godly pants.

        But in the Prez’s case I think it might have been somewhere more… backward. 😉

        cr

        • merilee
          Posted May 15, 2019 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

          The “backward” was what I had in mind.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:54 am | Permalink

            😎

      • Posted May 17, 2019 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        Zeus’ mushroom?

  15. Posted May 15, 2019 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    It is encouraging to see such a text in the National Review. This morning, I was sitting with my father and 4 his friends and I touched the evolution question. All the friends started to lecture me how wrong I was and how evolution theory was debunked! My father kept silence. He had already lost a friend by defending evolution and didn’t want to lose those ones as well.

    • Posted May 16, 2019 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      Just out of curiosity, what religion were his friends?

      When people make that claim to me I dont counter with scientific arguments because the claim that evo was debunked is not a scientific statement but is based on social,religious cultural issues.
      I always reply “the people who told you that evolution has been disproved were lying to you” and i try to keep the discussion at that level

      • Posted May 16, 2019 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        You are right that arguing with incompetent people brainwashed by religion is a waste of time.
        They were Orthodox Christians, the traditional religion of my country. I was surprised because back in the days when it was strong, it kept distance from science and showed little opposition to it. I suspect cross-cultural influence by Western Protestants.

  16. Curt Nelson
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    I can never understand the free will issue. I think we have it and Jerry always says we don’t, but then on his slide is this:

    There is no mind body dualism: no free will. The mind is what the brain does.

    Well I agree with that. The mind is what the brain does, and I am my brain. What my brain does, I do. Therefore, I have free will. For clarity I would rephrase “no dualism” to “no soul.”

    Is the free will issue so confusing because it’s a misunderstanding? Does “free” mean free from our physical self? Why not change the question to: Do we have souls?

    • rickflick
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      I think the critical aspect is whether we have free will in the sense that the “Me” is separate from the physical brain. Which, on it’s face, is absurd, but held by many because of the way we perceive ourselves as abstract observers of ourselves. Does that help?

      • Curt Nelson
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 6:00 am | Permalink

        Yes. I understand that many people would believe that the “Me” is separate from the physical brain. It’s essentially a religious question – if our “Me” survives bodily death a religious explanation for what happens next is called for.

        Do we have free will? = Is God real?

        • rickflick
          Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:09 am | Permalink

          No, and no.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

      “What my brain does, I do. Therefore, I have free will.”

      I think you should be more explicit here in step two.

      • Posted May 16, 2019 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        But where is the error here? Do you object that it is his brain that does the job?

    • Posted May 16, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      I absolutely agree. The theories about lack of free will are always perplexing to me (not to mention that they have zero practical value, as even their authors and supporters admit). I suspect that this free will is simply different from the free will in everyday sense, which we surely have and which the theories call an illusion.
      Well, it may be an illusion, but it is palpable and incredibly useful. And it can be registered. You give the research subjects a choice, e.g. “In the lunch break, do you want a $2 burger or a gourmet dish for $18? You see which brain fields are working and you localize the free will to, say, the prefrontal cortex.

  17. Posted May 16, 2019 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Apparently Khan took some serious heat on Twitter from the SJW Left, and wasn’t too happy about it.

  18. peterschaeffer
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Folks, imagine if Pew had asked a question like

    “Do you think the roles of men and women in our society are in whole or part a consequence of evolution?”

    Near zero Democrats would answer in the affirmative. As it turns out, I know Razib Khan to a very, very limited extent. Here is a quote from Razib.

    “To give a concrete example of how far this goes, there are many liberal Left people who won’t even accede to the proposition that men are, on average, stronger in terms of upper body strength than women. A few years ago this came up on social media, where a friend who has a biology background from an elite university, even expressed skepticism at this, when I was trying to get her to be open to behavioral differences between the sexes by starting with something I thought she would at least agree with as reasonable. When I saw the lack of unequivocal acceptance of this point I decided to opt out of the conversation. This was basically face to face with Left Creationism.”

  19. Zetopan
    Posted May 19, 2019 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    “It’s refreshing, then, to see an article in National Review”

    If you read the subsequent comments after the article I suspect that you will not find it so “refreshing”. Arrogant ignorance is on parade: no intermediate fossils have been found since Darwin, etc. Literally all of the usual long ago debunked creationists excuses.

    • Posted May 19, 2019 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      It’s still refreshing to see a defense of evolution published in a conservative magazine, regardless of what the benighted readers think.


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